"The Difficulty Would be Stupendous": The Future of Automation in 1928

January 25, 2019

"The Difficulty Would be Stupendous": The Future of Automation in 1928

A lot has changed since 1928, when this unusual book, Automation or The Future of the Mechanical Man by Henry Stafford Hatfield, evaluated the potential of many types of automation that we now take for granted.

Hatfield analyses the types of automatic control systems that were then available and makes predictions about the types of work they might or might not be able to take over in the future. He discusses the possibility of:

  • Machines reading printed text and handwriting (“The difficulty would be stupendous; I should say insuperable”).
  • Automatic traffic control (“a good light-sensitive relay would, as I have already remarked, readily enable a signal to be sent that something was approaching a cross road. It would be next door to impossible, however, to signal ‘man,’ ‘car,’ ‘horse and cart,’, let alone ‘policeman,’”).
  • Typing from dictation ("I venture to say that if any technical problem can be flatly termed insoluable, this is one").
  • Using machines to mass produce other machines.
  • Counting and accounting.
  • and even “the automatic steering of ships and airplanes”.

Hatfield seems to have been an inventor himself—he was involved in at least one patent lawsuit and was connected with a business called The Reason Manufacturing Co. Ltd.— and he was the author of several books about invention and technology. This very interesting volume is now rare; we can locate only four copies in institutions, at the Johannesburg City Library, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague, Oregon State, and the Staatsbibliotek zu Berlin.